Emergency Workers Exposed to Asbestos in Middle School Rescue

Few emergency services workers take the job because they expect a safe and cushy work environment free of risk – but few consider asbestos exposure to be one of the routine hazards of the job, either. Emergency workers responding to a recent rescue call at a Colorado middle school were recently exposed to just that risk, however.
On April 30, 2008 , demolition and cleanup workers were laboring at the Aspen Middle School in Aspen , Colorado . Denver local Juan Ruiz, age 29, was working on the site when an unsupported cinder-block wall collapsed on top of him. Ruiz had been working at the removal of vermiculite, an insulating material which is itself harmless but which is very often contaminated with asbestos fibers; the two minerals are often found together and vermiculite mines have often neglected to segregate the deadly asbestos product. When Ruiz was injured, a team of local sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, police officers, and an ambulance crew responded to the scene. Rescuers attempting to reach Ruiz had to enter a part of the building which was shrouded in plastic because of the asbestos contamination risk.

Rescuers were initially worried that more walls might collapse, but that concern was soon replaced by another – they noticed that all of the construction workers on the site were wearing protective suits and breathing masks. The rescue team was apprised of the asbestos risk, but elected to proceed with their attempt to save Ruiz. A spokesman for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office said “We’re prepared for these types of scenarios…By the time we were into it, we saw that it was a possibly hazardous situation.” One deputy reported coughing after entering and leaving the contaminated zone, but attributed that to the concrete dust which was thick in the air. Rescuers received medical attention and filled in workman’s comp paperwork the day after the exposure. Director of Human Resources for the city of Aspen Rebecca Doane said that this type of follow-up was standard procedure, particularly for something as potentially deadly as asbestos exposure. She said that city employees would be taken care of in the wake of the exposure, but that danger is an intrinsic part of the first-responder business. “Are we going to tell them not to go into a burning building?” Doane said. “The nature of their job is dangerous.” The rescuers were unfortunately not able to save Ruiz, who died of the injuries he sustained from the accident.